European Literature Days 2017 | Day 2

The first day’s programme here in Spitz was packed full to bursting. That doesn’t make the task of this chronicle writer any easier to give a retrospective account of the high-calibre panel discussions and nuanced conversations.

Archaeology of Fear

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Following on from the opening evening, the keynote theme “fear” was also the topic for Friday’s debates. One could venture a systematic account and maybe describe the morning session as “measuring fear”, while the afternoon and evening were rather devoted to overcoming fear. 

The morning began with Elisabeth Åsbrink from Stockholm and Sergej Lebedew from Moscow who were joined by Carl Henrik Fredriksson to discuss “when now begins”. As investigative journalists, they regard their main task as searching for diagnoses about the present-day in the past. Digging out reasons, searching for connections, one can probe deeper and deeper into Europe’s history to find illuminating causes for our current malaise. Sergej Lebedew comes from a family geologists; he himself is a geologist and describes his work as a daily construction project with remembrance stone. Overall, it’s mainly about our yesterday and today and less about our tomorrow. Perhaps, this is because not all stones are yet unturned and not all memories yet fully measured and classified.

As far as the importance of historical connections goes, the day’s second panel debate struck a similar chord. Gila Lustiger and Karim Miské from Paris are joined for the debate by Katja Petrovic. They tackle the topic of terror in the Parisian districts as well as strive to understand the recent terror attacks in the French capital. Nor do both these writers completely emerge from the recapitulation mode. The discussion focuses a lot on how they experienced the individual attacks and events, summarizing the news and doing more research. Our fear today seems to overwhelm us, so that perhaps we believe we can only master it by repeatedly taking another look at it, remembering, analysing and recapitulating. Gila Lustiger reads a powerful, impressive text about burning libraries in the French suburbs that convey a great deal of desperation. Karim Miské tries to understand why fellow nationals kill each other. Again, both writers do not seem to want to risk looking ahead; what stirs up fear is still too close to home.

Fears of entirely different kinds are then the focus for Jaroslav Rudiš and Leif Randt. In their novels, they write about men who are battling one way or the other with their masculinity, with their present situation, the reality of their lives and, of course, also with women. Two archetypal contemporary men put forward these texts – with Rudiš, it is the poetic bestseller, and with Randt the sceptical cissy, and it is enjoyable listening to both. Because anxieties can also be thoroughly entertaining when they are translated in this style into literature.

The most light-hearted panel debate was probably provided in the afternoon with Aleš Šteger and Andrzej Stasiuk, moderated by Carl Henrik Fredriksson. The atmosphere was not only because of the content. When Stasiuk took the stage with his military rucksack, his vape and a glass of red wine, it was already obvious that we are now dealing with more than just a debate about travel literature. Stasiuk puffs on his e-cigarette and first takes a gulp of wine, and my compliments go especially to the moderator and Aleš Šteger who didn’t allow their space on stage to overshadowed. Both writers talked about the extreme situations that they encountered as travel writers and that, in fact, they don’t know any fear – other than the fear of nothing happening. As listeners, one gets the feeling that this approach might possibly be the answer to all our anxieties: let’s go, let’s set off, let’s hop in the car with Stasiuk and Šteger to explore the world. Let’s not analyse or dig too much, but mainly observe, regain our composure and just be in the world.

When Stasiuk is then supposed to start his reading he spontaneously decides to pick a different excerpt than the prepared translation. So, he causes the moderator to break out in a sweat again and makes his co-panellist and the audience laugh. In the end, however, everything turns out alright. Stasiuk has captivated us and the world seems a little less frightening.

The day drew to a sensational close with the evening reading by Deborah Levy and Elif Shafak, combined with the presentation of the “Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award” to Elif Shafak. British journalist Rosie Goldsmith makes the triumvirate of the alpha-females perfect; she gifted us not only a clever and passionate moderation but also an emotionally moving laudatio speech in honour of Elif Shafak.

Eulogy by Rosie Goldsmith in honour of Elif Shafak

I could begin by listing the many and varied achievements of this remarkable woman – and I will do that – but first I want to talk about love and tolerance.

Elif Shafak is the embodiment of these words and of the struggle to give those words meaning, in her own life and the lives of others. She is too modest to claim that she succeeds – but convincing you of that is why I’m here.

A eulogy must by definition focus on the dignity, reputation and achievements of the individual. And it’s back to Cicero and the Romans, so skilled in public word and deed, for that definition: “in laudationibus . . . ad personarum dignitatem omnia referentur.”

Tonight we are honouring Elif Shafak, Turkish by birth but a citizen of the world who lives a life of multiculturalism, multiple identities and multilingualism. Outwardly her favourite attire may be dark, her voice soft, but inwardly – “in my harem within”, as she calls it – she wears a coat of many colours and shouts from the rooftops.

Elif responds to many colours and voices, but where we may hear only cacophony, she seeks harmony and opportunity. The term “magical schizophrenia” has been used about her writing – but for me it is a form of “magical reconciliation”. In these turbulent times, she wrestles with apparent irreconcilables - the battles between past and present, west and east, poor and rich, city and country, politics and personal, men and women - and presents us with eloquent and courageous lectures and literature that define our modern world, and very specifically, her country of origin, Turkey. For Elif Shafak, words have power and matter as much as powerful deeds.

If Elif were an army general – what a thought! - she would bear several rows of medals across her chest. She has been honoured many times. Tonight’s Austrian Book Prize Award for Tolerance of Thought and Deed is perfect in all ways. Consider this past week alone: she has protested against the abuses of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the imprisonment of Osman Kavala in Istanbul and of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. She spoke up against the neo-Nazi march in Warsaw, the destructive forces of Brexit in her adopted British homeland and the sordid sex abuse scandals and daily indignities suffered by women. Elif Shafak does not simply adopt the trendy and trending hashtag issues of the day, she cares, takes personal risks and suffers trolling, abuse and threats. What unites her many concerns is the desire to make our world a better place, more tolerant and loving. This may sound naïve, but maybe we should seriously consider Elif’s back-to-basics message: never repeat the past, learn from history, unite against racism, censorship, misogyny, homophobia, dictatorship, fascism, genocide and holocaust. She consistently counters negative words with powerful positives, such as love, dignity, humanity, peace, freedom, tolerance, democracy and equality.

Elif Shafak is that rarity of modern times, a public intellectual, qualified with all the personal legitimacy and academic tools of that trade. She has degrees in International Relations, Gender and Women’s Studies and a PhD in Political Science; she is a prolific journalist and novelist; a mother, daughter and wife. She was born in Strasbourg to Turkish parents and speaks French, Spanish, English and Turkish. She writes in both Turkish and English and has published fifteen books, including ten novels. Her writing has been translated into over forty languages. Elif Shafak is Turkey’s most popular woman writer.

Her latest novel is the outstanding and ambitious Three Daughters of Eve, in which she tackles identity, politics, Islam and women. Peri, the protagonist, grows up in a Muslim family in1980s Turkey, caught between her father's secularism and her mother's fundamentalism. She earns a scholarship from Oxford University and in England makes friends with an atheist Iranian girl called Shirin (“the Sinner”) and Mona, a devout head-scarved Egyptian-American (“the Believer”). Along with Peri (“The Confused”) they are the Three Daughters of Eve, very different women, very different Muslims. After a scandal, Peri embarks on her own spiritual quest, which – as in all Elif Shafak’s novels - becomes an examination of Turkey itself. Her previous bestsellers, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, The Flea Palace and The Architect’s Apprentice, successfully cross the arrogant literary divide of popular and serious fiction and are read by everyone.

The Bastard of Istanbul, published ten years ago, landed Elif in trouble. This rich novel of unforgettable female characters bravely confronted the violent Ottoman past and the 1915 Armenian genocide. Elif was prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness", faced up to three years in jail but was finally acquitted. Her prosecution only further fuelled her courage and criticism of the regime of President Erdogan. Her own husband, a journalist, is on Erdogan’s ‘wanted list’. “There is not much public debate left in Turkey,” she wrote recently, “there are only political ghettoes and cultural islands…We have lost any appreciation for diversity, coexistence, pluralism. Everyday is another stressful day. It is tiring to be Turkish.”

Elif Shafak has also tirelessly taken on the rest of the world, as we plunge headfirst into global fear and instability. We are no longer living in a bipolar Cold War Us-and-Them, East-West world, she believes, today the upheavals are heaped on our doorstep. Whether Catalonia or Hungary, Poland or Russia, Brexit-Britain or Trump’s USA, she subjects them all to her calm, measured scrutiny, in lectures and debates across the world, often the only woman on all-male panels, a woman in a man’s world – as we all are - firmly holding her own and providing inspiration to the rest of the sisterhood. Her clear insight into the lives and choices of women has launched her into feminist icon territory, with a mass following – and 1.7 million on Twitter. Her memoir Black Milk, about her post-natal depression, forced her to examine her own life and conclude that, "to be human... means to live with an orchestra of conflicting voices and mixed emotions….my harem within."

Elif was published in Turkish for the first time in 1994, when she was only twenty-three. She has not left us in peace since. If you consider her body of work, there is a reassuring consistency in her restless exploration of ideas and ideologies and experimentation with style and genre. She grows with each book. She is driven, I think, by love. Her novel The Forty Rules of Love is her closest examination of the nature of love and her own Sufi beliefs, serious but also another of her seriously good page-turning historical novels. 

Elif Shafak calls herself a nomad. She is European and Middle Eastern, constantly on the move, a wandering minstrel with a pocketful of stories.
“Why can’t we have multiple homes, multiple homelands?” she asks.
Her Twitter profile describes her simply as a “storyteller”. Her Homeland is Storyland and her stories a response to tyranny and tribalism. Elif’s Storyland is full of people of all voices and colours, treasure chests of bright clothes, dazzling palaces of architectural complexity, magnificent mosques and cathedrals resounding with songs in all languages; a Storyland where The Sinner, The Believer and The Confused all live together. In freedom.

Deborah Levy, who regales us with tales about relationships, love and gender roles, about Virgina Woolf, Quasimodo and black vodka, spreads an aura in the room that quickly encourages you to pick up pen and notebook again. She is poetic, intelligent and self-ironical and, afterwards, a group of enthusiastic female fans swarms around her.

Elif Shafak also leaves the audience impressed and moved. She speaks with great clarity, warmth and intelligence about fluid identities, sexism among intellectuals and about how as a writer in Turkey, from one side, one often gets a slap on the face, while one is kissed on the other cheek. She talks about the linguistic abyss of migrants and the dance of belief and desperation. It is okay to despair and to feel confused – to be afraid. Our society must create more space where people are allowed to express their deepest worries, yet without feeling that they have been treated condescendingly. Perhaps, allowing more space for compassion can be a way to beat fear.

At the end of today’s full day of debates, fortunately everybody had almost forgotten already that, shortly beforehand, one of the prize-givers had made a sexist comment in his speech. (“Previous years’ prize winners were all old, male and ugly. Elif Shafak is neither old, male and certainly not ugly.”) That caused a large part of the audience to shudder.

Rasha Khayat

Rasha Khayat, b. 1978 in Dortmund, is a German-Arabic writer, translator and editor. She grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and studied comparative literature, German Studies and philosophy in Bonn. Since 2005 she has lived in Hamburg. Her first novel, Weil wir längst woanders sind, was published in spring 2016.

Rasha Khayat, geb. 1978 in Dortmund, ist eine deutsch-arabische Schriftstellerin, Übersetzerin und Lektorin. Sie wuchs in Djidda, Saudi-Arabien auf, studierte Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaften, Germanistik und Philosophie in Bonn. Seit 2005 lebt sie in Hamburg. Im Frühjahr 2016 erschien ihr erster Roman Weil wir längst woanders sind.

Rasha Khayat, b. 1978 in Dortmund, is a German-Arabic writer, translator and editor. She grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and studied comparative literature, German Studies and philosophy in Bonn. Since 2005 she has lived in Hamburg. Her first novel, Weil wir längst woanders sind, was published in spring 2016.

Rasha Khayat, geb. 1978 in Dortmund, ist eine deutsch-arabische Schriftstellerin, Übersetzerin und Lektorin. Sie wuchs in Djidda, Saudi-Arabien auf, studierte Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaften, Germanistik und Philosophie in Bonn. Seit 2005 lebt sie in Hamburg. Im Frühjahr 2016 erschien ihr erster Roman Weil wir längst woanders sind.

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